Don’t ask Philip Korshak to name his favorite poets. The owner of Korshak Bagels won’t divulge such information because — much like his bagels — he believes poetry is about personal discovery.
“What I like or what I don’t like is so arbitrary,” Korshak explains on a quiet Monday afternoon at his new shop on the corner of 10th and Morris in South Philly. “More importantly is that so much of our civilization needs to pit one versus another for a sense of achievement. It is largely imaginary,” Korshak says as the crispy and cushiony bagels he has become known for were being prepared with care and attention.
By now you’ve probably heard of Korshak, Philadelphia’s favorite bagel maker and poet. You’ve likely driven past the blocks-long line on a Sunday morning. You may have stood in that line yourself waiting for a taste of his fancy bagels and schmancy schmears, like the Blue Angel with blueberry compote, lemon zest, and smashed blueberries and the tangerine date jam called Clem. And if you have, you’ve likely also seen those brown paper bags pasted to the door of the shop, scrawled in permanent marker with mosaics of Korshak’s morning poems.
At Korshak Bagels, visitors must abandon any expectations they have for what a bagel shop should be — what it should look like or feel like or what kind of service is provided. For Korshak, that’s kind of the point. When you step into his shop, the bagel maker wants you to ask yourself What is going on?
“Only if you are open to sorrow will you have enough perspective to be willing to catch a glimpse of joy,” Korshak says of his hybrid bagel-poetry approach. “If we look at ourselves and our lives as being these very narrow and focused cyclops things, then the revelation of joy will be small.” Sure, his operation strays from conventionality. If you lean into it, there is a chance you’ll find the sublime.
Korshak graduated with a master’s degree in poetry from Wake Forest University, so it’s no wonder he looks at the world through a metrical lens. His master’s thesis was on T.S. Eliot and the linguistic and philosophical differences between The Waste Land and Four Quartets. When Korshak was around 4 or 5 years old, his mother taught him the importance of reading poetry out loud and enunciating words because it gives voice to the poetry. The orator’s voice gives energy to the poet’s words and poetry is no longer a solitary act.
A book of poetry that is unread, Korshak says, is nothing more than a doorstop “until you put your eyes on it to give [it] voice.” Similarly, “a bagel is nothing until it is in the human,” Korshak says. “Until the human quite literally readjusts their atomic structure,” a bagel is nothing. Luckily for the humans, these physiological shifts are attributed to flavorful combinations of pastrami smoked salmon, whitefish, roasted long hot cream cheese on a variety of internally soft, externally crunchy bagels.
Around the same time that Korshak’s mother taught him about poetry, she showed a young Philip how to make a dry gin martini, which in some ways sowed the seeds for his bagel-making career. It was a clear example of how the right combination of vermouth, gin, and olive juice could produce something more special than its individual components. Just like words on a page, each ingredient is not enunciated until it becomes the symphony that is a dry gin martini.
Through bagels, Korshak is trying to do the same, where he and his staff “give voice to something that will then connect to another human being, where the voice they then enunciate is fueled by ours,” he says. After over a year of a devastating global pandemic, Korshak’s ethos — that “we’re all in this together” — has never been more relevant.
A pillar of Korshak’s business is paying livable wages to all employees and creating a safe and enriching environment. As a restaurant industry veteran, he is acutely aware of the harmful and misogynistic behaviors that color the restaurant industry, which is why Korshak revels in the fact that he has set his own zero-tolerance standards for harassment and intimidation at his bagel shop.
Korshak notes that we are currently going through a major shift in the restaurant industry where the status quo is slowly being exposed as unviable. “The vindictive part is that for years, what we have been told is that [livable wages are] impossible,” he says. “It’s one of the best boogeyman stories around, like Chupacabra level, boo scary stuff. The last year hasn’t been swell or has been terrifying. Maybe both.” One of the nice things, Korshak says, is that boogeyman stories are often revealed to be bunk. “That is why I think we’re seeing a change in the industry. The ability to go ‘Aha, you were wrong!’ is a punk rock aesthetic that I enjoy.”
Korshak would be delighted if you stopped by the shop for some bagels. But the buck shouldn’t stop there. “I’m much more interested in somebody who comes to my shop, [then] spends money at Varallo across the street as well as the deli down the block and Fountain Porter and Urban Jungle. They too should be fed by all the visitors,” says Korshak. That sentiment is emblematic of his entire mission: to foster a community that lives and thrives off of each other.
“A bagel shop is not a boat, not a pirate ship — but maybe a lighthouse — standing in when the moon is not full,” one of Korshak’s paper bag poems reads. “Every bagel is a love letter revealed only when read, held, consumed, until then, until you, it is light waiting to fall.”